Picture this scenario. Your 12 year old daughter who loves to ride horses spends her weekends at the local barn taking care of a beautiful filly. She tells you that she wants to be a horse veterinarian when she grows up. Since she’s your daughter, you want to guide her towards her dream. But should you?
Being a veterinarian is a very rewarding profession as we are able to facilitate the human-animal bond. We are able to work in complex environments and appreciate critical thinking. We take an oath to continue to learn and do no harm. It’s these intangible assets and many others that drive young college aged students toward becoming a veterinarian.
Are the rewards worth the sacrifice in time and money? I argue, YES - but with the following disclaimer. The vast majority of veterinarians never become wealthy as their salaries are substantially less than human doctors and most other professionals. The average veterinarian makes $88,000 a year, however this salary does not take into account the large amount of debt that veterinarians accrue. This debt service greatly reduces our salary as a large percentage is paid as student debt.
The veterinary field has the highest (yes number one) student debt to income ratio in the country at 2 to 1. This means that for every 2 dollars of debt owed you make 1 dollar. The total average reported debt per student is about $175,000. Some will argue that this number is even higher as veterinary colleges have an incentive to create an appearance of lower debt and some oversea schools will not release complete financial data.
This problem is not going away anytime soon as new schools are being accredited each year and current schools are increasing their class sizes. More veterinarians overcrowding an employment pool gives large corporations and small practice owners the upper hand when negotiating salaries. Additionally, while women make up 75% of the field according the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) they may make 15-20% less in salary per year thus inflating the debt to income ratio.
To make matters worse, a recent study from the AVMA interviewing 10,000 veterinarians found that 15% of men and 19% of women have contemplated suicide and 1.1% of men and 1.4% of women have attempted suicide. Upwards of 25% of males and 37% percent of females in veterinary medicine have experienced depressive episodes since veterinary school, which is about 1 and 1/2 times the rate for the general population across all occupations.
You may be asking yourself, if my daughter is accepted, how will she deal with the pressures of school? Based on a survey of more than 14,000 veterinary students and 4,000 responses not too well. Sixty seven percent of students had experienced a period of depression, and of those, 37% had an episode lasting more than 2 weeks. The most surprising results of this study were that 25 percent of students reported taking medication for diagnosed depression or anxiety.
I can’t help but to think of all of my colleagues who are suffering with significant debt and mental illness. Veterinarians have dedicated nearly a decade of their lives to rigorous schooling only to find themselves 10 years later, knee deep in debt and struggling to make ends meet. Is this field sustainable on its current trajectory? NO. Veterinarians, as a community, must create a professional environment that is both secure and safe; one that will hopefully allow future generations to thrive and flourish.